People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos is dedicated to opening doors to literature for new audiences. Through oral readings and rigorous discussions of enduring short stories, we invite underserved participants to find fresh understandings of themselves, of others, and of the world.
Over the course of more than forty years and serving more than 40,000 people, People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos has offered access to the power of the humanities. Our method of reading and discussion reaches individuals in transition, encouraging adults and young adults to move forward with their education while strengthening the literacy skills to do so. The short stories we select are rich in artistry, exploring life’s complications, wonders, and ambiguities.
Program participants learn not only from the text of these stories, as a solitary reader does, and not only from the facilitator, who is trained to avoid the typical “teacher” role of one who imparts knowledge to others. Participants learn from their own interpretations, from the differing ideas offered by others in the room, and from the dialogue that emerges as readers examine and build on one another’s responses. As a result, individuals can question stereotypes with increased awareness, communicate with empowered voices, and refine critical and analytical thinking skills to expand a sense of possibility. Using literature as a spark, the People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos method ignites a life-long love of reading.
We integrate our programs with partner organizations focused on critical life transitions:
- Prisoners moving to probation
- Halfway house residents re-joining the community
- At-risk youth in alternative education programs
- Adults enrolled in adult education programs
- Immigrants working toward citizenship
- Veterans re-entering civilian society
- Seniors moving to new stages
- Parents who are members of any of the above groups
A critical bridge, People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos provides hope and skills for envisioning and pursuing new ambitions.
How We Began
Since 1972, People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos has been connecting lives to literature through vibrant reading and discussion programs. The program began in Spanish in a housing project in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when founder, Sarah Hirschman, organized a group of Puerto Rican women for a Gente y Cuentos pilot series. Programs in Spanish continued in community centers in Trenton, New Jersey, and in a barrio outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1981, the project expanded to include programs in Florida, Texas, New York, and Puerto Rico.
The program in English, People & Stories, began in 1986 in New Jersey and the project became a non-profit corporation in 1993. The program continued to expand by serving regional audiences with programs throughout New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. In 2005, People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos developed Crossing Borders with Literature, a program model that invites suburban participants to join programs, forging connections that cross municipal, socioeconomic, racial, and cultural lines. In 2010, the project expanded to include Story Talk / Cuentos y Plática, a youth initiative that reaches at-risk young adult audiences across the country, including sites in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.
Today, our programs continue to reach youth, adults, and seniors in diverse social service agencies—including residential treatment facilities, prisons, homeless shelters, adult education programs, libraries, senior centers, and alternative schools—on local, regional, and national levels.
What We Do
People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos offers literature reading and discussion programs to individuals at partner organizations including prisons, rehabilitation facilities, halfway houses, adult education programs, alternative schools, homeless shelters, libraries, senior centers. Through our programs, we provide access to literature to those who may have had limited opportunities to experience literature’s joys, pleasures, and challenges.
The format of a classic People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos program is essentially the same at all sites. Approximately 15-20 adults or young adults gather around a table or sit in a circle for eight, 90-minute sessions to hear and discuss short stories in either English or Spanish. In each program, a trained coordinator reads aloud a literary short story. The oral reading cuts across the various reading levels in the group and creates an atmosphere of shared experience for participants. Following the reading, the coordinator facilitates a vibrant discussion on the poetics, tensions/contrasts, ambiguities, and issues found within the text. Participants draw upon their experiences and acquired knowledge to discuss the stories, and they discover their life experience has prepared them to understand and examine complex short stories.
Story selections from our bibliography for a program in English might include: “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self,” by Alice Walker; “Thank you Ma’am,” by Langston Hughes; “Safety Man” by Dan Chaon; “The Not-Dead and the Saved” by Kate Clanchy; “Abalone, Abalone, Abalone,” by Toshio Mori; “American History,” by Judith Ortiz-Cofer; and “Marriage is a Private Affair,” by Chinua Achebe, just to name a few. A list of possible story selections for a program in Spanish might include “No era bonita la tía Cristina,” Angeles Mastretta; “El tapado,” Augusto Guzmán; “El misterioso cocinero volador aparecido en el Hotel y Pensión Esquina,” Bernado Kordon; “La prodigiosa tarde de Baltazar,” Gabriel García Márquez; “La noche buena,” Tomás Rivera; “Dos palabras,” Isabel Allende; and “Peleando desnuda,” Esmeralda Santiago, among others.
People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos is a program without walls. That is, we meet participants at various social service agencies and provide the program coordinator, all program materials and procedures while a collaborating organization provides the space for the program and recruits participants. A sample list of sites includes: Bo Robinson Education and Training Center (Trenton), Rescue Mission of Trenton, Kairos House (Philadelphia), Puerto Rican Action Board (New Brunswick, NJ), Lawrence Senior Center (Lawrenceville, NJ), New Jersey Youth Corps of Trenton. A full list of collaborating organizations can be found here.
What People Say About Us
“I’d Love to see People & Stories programs for the parents of children in every at-risk school district in the country and to see local businesses and service organizations get behind them.”
Robert Hass, Professor of English, UC Berkeley
Poet Laureate of the United States, 1995–1997
“The program breaks down stereotypes by showing common experience through literature. Participants discover that they have the ability to communicate about literature and controversial issues, which increases their self-confidence.”
President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities
Coming Up Taller: Arts and Humanities Programs for Children and Youth At Risk
“People & Stories…provides a glimpse of the world of the humanities, opening students’ minds to critical thinking and problem-solving. At the same time, People & Stories helps our clients see the value of reading for pleasure as well as for survival in the everyday world.”
Rev. Brian McCormick, Founding President,
Martin House Community for Justice Foundation